PADUA, Italy – Authorities in northern Italy have begun testing health workers for antibodies that can help identify individuals with immunity to the corona virus as they look for ways to facilitate locking that were put in place a month ago to deal with the epidemic.
On Monday, the northeastern region of Veneto, which witnessed one of the earliest outbreaks of disease in Italy in February, began blood tests on health workers, following neighboring Emilia Romagna, who began testing last week.
“I can announce that blood tests on health workers have begun,” said regional governor Luca Zaia.
After the initial testing phase of 2,000-3,000 health workers, the test will be expanded for staff and residents in nursing homes and community-related workers.
Zaia said the aim would eventually be to enable the authorities to issue a “license” for individuals with proven immunity to the virus from returning to work.
The test comes when the number of deaths and infections has been leveled and the government has begun to consider the so-called phase 2 phase of the crisis, when business and industry are closed as long as the lockdown can begin to reopen.
The total number of confirmed cases increased by only 3,599 on Monday to 132,547, the lowest daily increase since March 17, while the number of deaths increased from 636 to 16,523 – just under a quarter of all deaths recorded so far in the world.
With Italy’s fragile economy facing the most serious collapse since the Second World War, authorities are eager to restart production while avoiding a second wave of infections that could reignite the epidemic.
But in the absence of drugs or vaccines, the response is hampered by many unknown aspects of the virus and uncertainty about whether immunity can be developed to fight it.
The test, which looks for antibodies produced by the immune system in response to disease, is simpler than a mucus swab test used to find the virus itself, but there are some doubts about whether they can produce reliable results.
“Some said they would work, others said they would not,” Zaia said at a daily briefing. “It all must be proven, but that is how vaccines are made as well.”
The blood test, which produces results much faster than the swab test, aims to identify two types of antibodies – one that shows contact with the virus and the second that will indicate whether the body has developed a defense against it.
“We have begun to verify whether these tests are effective and whether they are in accordance with molecular analysis,” said Andrea Crisanti, a professor of virology at the University of Padua, who was testing with the University of Verona.
“I think in two weeks or a month we will have enough data to be able to have a certain level of confidence,” he told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Jewkes in Milan and Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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